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Inanimate aspirations

My chum, who these days walks the Outer Beach more often than I do, commented that “high tides are reaching further up the beach than they used to.” This is not a surprising observation. We have known for some time now that global warming is resulting in significant sea-level rise. When I first came to the Cape a half-century ago, the rule of thumb was that the Outer Beach was losing an average of three feet per year. More recent studies by oceanographers have shown the rate of erosion has increased; in portions of the beach, it has more than doubled, and shows no sign of slowing down.

Over the past decade several oceanfront houses in the southern part of my town of Wellfleet have either fallen into the sea or have been moved back from its edge. Because we take an anthropocentric view of things, we are usually aware of natural erosion only when it threatens human artifacts: seaside cottages, lighthouses, bath houses, and parking lots. One place where the effects of erosion are strikingly visible on natural formations is just south of Newcomb Hollow Beach. Here the face of the sea cliffs is composed of massive domes of blue and yellow-brown clay. Here, for decades, I have watched dramatic changes in these formations. Once, in a fit of hubris, I wrote a very long piece attempting to describe the range and variety of these outcrops. I should have known better. Almost as soon as my essay was published, I watched as these clay formations took on shapes and colors I could not have predicted. It was as if the cliffs were refuting my attempts to capture their essence. In any case, I realized that the creativity and diversity of these inanimate formations far outstripped anything I could imagine.

Just a few days ago, I walked this stretch of the beach and was startled at the extent to which these formations continue to change. South of the clay cliffs I had known for decades an entirely new range of clay domes has been revealed by recent erosion, creating new shapes and colors I had never seen before. The National Seashore has recently recognized this dynamic process by putting up lines of string at the cliff’s base and installing signs that read “PLEASE STAY OFF DUNES” and “KEEP BACK FROM EDGE,” intended, I presume, not to prevent erosion but to protect beach goers.

What struck me most, however, and what seemed to confirm what Kathy had said – was the shape of the beach itself. As I understand it, the shape of waves in summer tends to deposit sand on the beach, creating a wide and gently sloping shore. Seldom, except during violent storms, have summer waves reached up to the base of the cliffs. Now. In mid-summer, the scene had taken on the aspect of the typical winter beach, narrow and steeply sloping. It was clear that the previous high tides had recently cut into the base of the cliffs, revealing more and more of the new clay formations.

The late Barry Lopez, who was one of the finest celebrants of the natural world that this country has produced, argued for giving the nonhuman its due as “a web of interrelated beings,” each with “their own integrity and perhaps even their own aspirations.” Can we speak of inanimate forms as having “integrity” and “aspirations” without sounding hopelessly anthropomorphic? Seeing how this one stretch of beach constantly outstrips my attempts to conceptualize it in thought or capture it in words, do I have a choice?

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.